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Jeremy Gardiner: Exploring pages in the book of time

— December 2013

Associated media

Jeremy Gardiner painting Hartland Point Lighthouse

In November’s Cassone, Lindsey Shaw Miller wrote about three contemporary landscape artists. This month, she interviews one of them – painter, Jeremy Gardiner.

Lindsey Shaw-Miller:  Your exhibition at King’s Place earlier this year of 100 pictures, hung on two floors, was very impressive. Did seeing so much of your work together, and in such a large venue, change your view of your own work? How did it affect you?

Jeremy Gardiner: The earliest piece there was from 1996, a small painting of a pinnacle and a haystack on the Dorset coast, and the most recent was a monoprint from 2012. It was interesting to look at the work together, and to realize that since 2007 the pictures have taken on a complexity they didn’t have before. I could see that the research I’ve been doing on geology is responsible for that, I’m trying to pack in that information, to integrate more detail into the pictures, especially the monoprints, where I’m using thin ply and laser-printed images of fossils, taken from the Dorset County Museum, from drawings I’ve made, and from 19th-century book sources. These are inked up and used as woodblock prints within the monoprints.  I can cut very deep with the laser, it’s possible to be very accurate about depth; using a new technology opens up possibilities.

LSM: How important are specific locations to you. Can you work anywhere?

JG: Dorset is a baseline. It’s where I spent a lot of time growing up. It’s a landscape that’s been a background to my life. Geologically it’s incredibly important, the 95-mile stretch from Old Harry Rocks to Orcombe Point in East Devon is a UNESCO World Heritage site. I look at the landscapes I’m exploring like pages in a book of time.

The more I think about the geological history of the planet, which is 4.6 billion years old, and the universe, which is 30 billion years old, I’m reminded of a wonderful illustration in the Natural History Museum in New York.  There’s an incredible spiral stairwell, 100m long, and as you walk along it you go through time, 4.6 billion years. As you get to the end of this 100m ramp, the last two steps represent the 65 million years since the extinction of the dinosaurs. Right at the end of the ramp is a little glass slide embedded in the handrail, and inside it is a human hair, and that represents the whole of recorded human history. So when I look at the Dorset landscape I really do see pages in this book of time.

I’ve worked overseas a lot, perhaps because I have an adventurous spirit, but I’m always drawn back to England. I lived for 15 years in New York City, I’ve lived in Boston, five years in Miami (where I salvaged wood for my paintings from boats wrecked in Hurricane Andrew). I like contrast, that idea of travelling to a place to paint or to work. We could live in Dorset, we choose not to.  Today I’m living in Bath, but travel regularly to London to teach. There’s an excitement to arrival. I get the best of both worlds.

LSM: But you did live in Swanage for a while, in Paul Nash’s apartment, an important time for your work.

JG:Yes, I rented No 2 The Parade, Swanage, where Nash lived in 1935 and where he wrote the Shell Guide. I discovered an article from the Architectural Review of the same period, written by Nash, called ‘Swanage Seaside Surrealism’, a short story about a man being washed up on a beach. I read it while I was teaching at the Institute in Brooklyn, and when I came back to England I did some more research and found a whole parade of Victorian houses where he rented a flat. I lived there in 1991 and 1992 for several weeks at a time.

LSM: Do you begin your paintings with a fixed intention, or do you begin the process and see how they emerge?

JG: I tend to work in series, so there are several paintings on the go at any one time. An example would be the ‘Ballard Point’ paintings. These were made in the New York studio on 16 birch panels, based on the view that we talked about from Nash’s balcony window, looking at Ballard Point, which is the start of the Jurassic coast. Since last September I’ve been working on a series of 30 paintings, called ‘Pillars of Light’, of paintings of lighthouses on the Devon, Dorset and Cornish coast. I do set parameters, it’s not a restriction, I have a busy academic working life and if I set parameters I can fit it all into a timetable, but still leave room for experimentation.

LSM: Have you ever struggled with the question of whether to work three-dimensionally, or have you always been a painter?

JG: I’ve explored building and three-dimensional space through digital media. My work is construction. I make large reliefs for corporate clients and for those I need a big piece of birch; a slender poplar panel won’t work. I use a three-axial router to cut out areas of this 50mm block, so when I go to the wood shop in Keynsham to get these, it’s very much a sculptural activity. I use giant wood-turning and wood-cutting machines, but ultimately it’s going to be a painting.

LSM: Your work is said to reflect archaeology and geology, yet you are describing a detached relation to surface. Is that because you are more interested in depth?

JG: Those layers, along with the geological reference and the reference to strata, are about emulating the action of natural forces on the landscape, trying to distil that action through symbol and metaphor, on the painted surface of the picture. Mountains are worn down by rain and wind over thousands of years. How do you find the equivalent of that in a picture that you are making in a matter of months? My paintings are physical artefacts, not just paint on canvas.

LSM: Can you explain to me how you use jesmonite, and exactly what it is?

JG: Jesmonite is a casting medium that paleontologists use to cast fossils. It’s a high-powered plaster, very resilient, tough, epoxy-based. It can be mixed to different grades, it’s fast-drying and what I’ve been using it for is laminating acrylic paint. I build up layers of paint on the panel and use the jesmonite in between the layers to hold it all together. I can colour it and score into it. On areas like this 50m block, where I’m routing out quite deep, I might insert a jesmonite cast of a fossil, so I’m using it in more than one way. It holds detail incredibly well, and it’s water based.

LSM: Do outcomes frequently surprise you?

JG: I’m always trying to challenge the processes I use to make pictures, whether they are prints or paintings. I subvert my practice by integrating these new kinds of technological developments, and I’m influenced by other work that I see and by exhibitions. It might be a 19th-century painter like Frederic Church, whose work made a big impression on me, or it might be a contemporary American painter like Mark Bradford, who’s using urban landscape. I’m always intentionally trying to disturb my thinking about landscape, but I’m still setting goals, probably because of time constraints.

LSM: Do you feel comfortable with the description of yourself as an English painter in the English landscape tradition?

JG: I feel that I belong to a long and established English landscape tradition, painters like Turner, Constable, or artists such as Tunnard, who were looking at and exploring landscape through science and new technologies, and through direct physical engagement with that landscape. Being able to see the earth from space is an incredible experience, and one that 19th-century painters obviously didn’t have, so that affects the way I look at landscape, and informs the way people see my paintings. I think there’s a fantastic tradition that’s very strong today, and as a painter I’ve no problem with fitting into that tradition.

The Art of Jeremy Gardiner, Unfolding Landscape, by Ian Collins, Peter Davies, Simon Martin, Christiana Payne and William Varley, was published this year by Lund Humphries.


Lindsey Shaw-Miller

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